Issue 1
Issue 1

China’s New Era of Digital Reading

It’s April 23, World Reading Day. The Beijing subway is crowded as always. Gao Wei has a lunch date with his friends in Nanluoguxiang, the hipster area in western Beijing.

It is going to be a long subway journey for Gao Wei since his rented apartment is on the east side of the city. Gao Wei is lucky. He manages to find himself a corner spot in the train. As soon as the train starts to move, he pulls a book out of his bag. With his bag safely snuggled against the wall, he begins to read a thick book: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. He has barely made it through two pages when his phone beeps twice. His friends are sharing reviews of the restaurant where they are about to eat through social media platform WeChat. Most people on the train, like Gao Wei, are looking down at their smartphones. They only look up now and then when the name of the next stop is announced.

Gao Wei is quite a nerd when it comes to reading. He still reads “serious books.” Some of his friends say they have not touched any printed books for years.

The Chinese Academy of Press and Publications launched its 13th National Report of Chinese Reading Habits on April 18. The report, based on a survey of more than 40,000 readers in China, shows that more than 60% of Chinese people are practicing digital reading, meaning that they read on their computers, tablets, e-readers or their phones. A look around Gao Wei’s train car confirms that the smartphone is the device of choice, with each person spending over one hour reading digital content on their phones. Among those “reading” on their phones, 87.4% get their content feeds from WeChat.

China is the world’s largest mobile phone market, with 1.28 billion users as of January 2016, according to official data. That is bigger than the populations of Europe and North America combined. “About half of the Chinese people surveyed used computers to access the internet in 2015, while over 60% used their phones to get online,” said Mr. Wei Yushan, Director of the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication. Wei thinks the high penetration of smartphones is responsible for the high digital reading rate. In 2009, when his academy first added the question about digital reading into its annual survey, less than a quarter of those surveyed knew what it was or practiced it. In 2015, as shown in the latest report, 64% of Chinese people engaged in digital reading.

The 13th National Report on Chinese Reading Habits shows that WeChat is a popular platform for digital reading beyond social interactions, like conversing and checking friends’ statuses and updates. Of WeChat users, 63.2% use the platform to check news, 61.7% read materials recommended by their friends and 25.4% actively subscribe to regular feeds.

“Most of the content on my WeChat is recommended by my friends and family members, so it is closer to my life. At the same time, it is so convenient to get online when there is free WIFI everywhere. I am a FOMO (a person who has a Fear of Missing Out). I can just pick up the phone and check out the latest news and gossip, any time, any place,” explains Wang Zhentao, a second-year law student. He is waiting for his girlfriend outside a shopping mall in Beijing’s Sanlitun commercial district. “It is an easy and interactive tool, too. With just one hit, I can share the articles I like with all my friends.”

Xu Shengguo, Director of the National Reading Promotion Center, says such “social reading helps to spread nationwide reading.”

In 2006, China’s Central Propaganda Ministry, Central Civilization Office, and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) launched the “Nationwide Reading Program.” They believed the program could play a key role in “realizing and rejuvenating the powerful China Dream,” and could boost China’s “soft power.” At the beginning of this year, “Nationwide Reading” was even part of China’s 13th FiveYear Plan, considered the country’s general guidelines for economic development.

Two days before the launch of the National Report on Chinese Reading Habits, the China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association held the country’s second China Digital Reading Conference and released its own report on digital reading: The 2015 Chinese Digital Reading White Paper. The White Paper shows that the population of China’s digital readers has reached a size of 296 million people. And over half (52.2%) of those readers read via smartphones.

The White Paper also observes that digital readers are relatively young. A quarter of them are between the ages of 16 and 25, while half are from 26 to 35. There are slightly more male digital readers (53.5%) than their female counterparts. Over 30% of digital readers spend at least two hours reading per month, while only 7.3% of those who read printed books claim that amount of reading time. This difference illustrates the convenience of digital reading. However, some refuse to call it “reading.” In their minds, such “fragmented information scavenging” is nothing more than “smartphone addiction.”

Wang Zhentao’s mother is one of them. “What useful information can one really get out of less than 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there on WeChat?” she asks. As a Chinese teacher in a middle school, she is convinced that “printed books are the only decent books to read and the library is the only place for reading. One can be calm in such a quiet place. One can really READ the books.” At the same time, she admits that nowadays she reads mostly books about Chinese education, reference books for work, or her school’s collection of journals. She hardly has time for the library and her favorite books, which include Dreams of the Red Mansion

Xu Shengguo doesn’t appreciate such dismissive attitudes towards digital reading. “There is shallow reading, but there is also reading in depth. Some digital readers use more than smartphones. They also read on computers, tablets and ereaders.”

Amazon.cn has seen its sales of digital books surpass that of printed books over the past five years. “China was the fastest growing market for Amazon.com. We sold millions of Kindles,” Ms. Zhang Wenxu, Amazon.cn’s Global Deputy CEO, said in 2015. Dang Dang and Jing Dong, China’s largest online bookstores, both launched their own versions of e-readers in the last couple of months.

Ade, owner of three bookstores in Dali, Yunnan province, feels “a lack of security without a book by my side.” He calls digital reading “a great revolution” and said he is considering purchasing a Kindle soon. “Although I’m personally still a fan of printed books, I do think digital books have broken down the barriers for reading by making books cheaper and lighter. It is a technical, cultural and social trend that no one can stop,” he said.

In 2015, Chinese people read 7.84 books per capita, according to The National Report on Chinese Reading Habits. Of that figure, 4.58 were printed books and 3.26 were digital books. In comparison, only 4.5 books were read per capita in 2005. “Most of those books were just online junk literature anyway, nothing to be proud of,” Shenqifeitianzhu comments on his micro blog about the modest growth in readership. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Sanlian magazine, one of the most popular culture magazines in China.

The National Report on Chinese Reading Habits and the Digital Reading White Paper drew the same conclusions about what young Chinese people enjoyed reading the most in 2015. Whether they were reading print books or digital material on smartphones or e-readers, they prefer urban light romance, fantasies and literary classics. The 35-year-old Zhang Wei, better known as Tang Prince the 3rd, started writing fantasy novels in 2004. Forbes Magazine selected him as one of the 100 top influential people in 2015. On April 14, 2016, about 100,000 fans voted for him as Top Chinese Writer. With royalties well over a thousand million RMB, he surely takes the crown as China’s richest writer.

One area both reports failed to touch upon was China’s strict censorship policy — this could have been an unintentional oversight but probably not. After all, the SAPPRFT is in charge of both the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication and the China Audio-video and Digital Publishing Association. WeChat has its own smart automatic censorship mechanism that blocks any news or names that are classified as “sensitive.” The 700 million WeChat users in China are unable to read coverage of big headlines on topics like the Panama Papers.

A quick search for Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China on Amazon.cn comes up with three versions of the book. There is the English original, written by Harvard Professor Ezra F. Vogel and published by the Harvard University Press. There is the traditional Chinese edition published by the Chinese University (of Hong Kong) Press, and then there’s the simplified Chinese edition by the Beijing-based SDX Sanlian Publishing Company. Feng Keli translated both Chinese versions but the simplified version is 53,000 Chinese characters shorter because “sensitive content” wasor revised.

Gao Wei looks up from the simplified and shortened Chinese version of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China — there are whole sections of the book he’ll never get the chance to read. It is almost his stop, so he puts the book back into his bag and gets ready to get off the train.

Text by Tom Wang, Freelance Writer, Reading Enthusiast, Bookworm
Chapter 8 – 12